In William Shakespeare’s plays, characters fight battles and face witches, lead kingdoms and hunt murderers, spend and squander money and friendship. Just as often, though, they focus on what can be an equally difficult struggle: the pursuit of love.
As viewers and readers, we can relate to Shakespeare’s characters because we understand the desire for heartfelt relationships. While it’s unlikely that an audience member will have murdered the king of Scotland (as Macbeth does), almost everyone has experienced or seen a power struggle between a married couple (as between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). So, too, can we identify with young lovers pursuing a forbidden relationship (Romeo and Juliet), the agony of unrequited love (Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
), and the sarcasm of an intense flirtation (Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing
For Shakespeare’s characters, love transforms. It prompts them to change their personalities, to take risks, and to make sacrifices that would otherwise be unthinkable. In The Taming of the Shrew
, Kate gives up her abusive and headstrong behavior and becomes a domesticated version of her former self. In As You Like It
, Rosalind impersonates a man so that she can spend time with Orlando, her love interest. And Romeo and Juliet were famously willing to give up their fortunes, families, and—ultimately—their lives for love.
We’ll examine these characters and others as we look at the ways that love transforms Shakespeare’s characters.
Love transforms previously stable characters into risk-takers in William Shakespeare's plays. Some risks pay off. Others have dangerous—and permanent—consequences.
You’re probably familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet, two hormonal teenagers who meet at a ball and, having known each other for only a few hours, secretly plan to marry, though their families are sworn enemies and would never approve. But their daring scheme goes awry, and a misunderstanding leads one to commit suicide by poison and the other to die by a “happy dagger.” (Incidentally, the members of their families who haven’t died of grief end up getting along.)
is more about a political power struggle than a romance, love for her husband does play a part in turning Lady Macbeth into a risk-taker. When Lady Macbeth finds out that Macbeth might be fated to be king, she pushes him to embrace his aggressive side and murder the current king. Macbeth trusts and is devoted to his “dearest love,” his wife, so he listens. After a series of violent actions, Macbeth becomes king. But the risks don’t pay off and, in the end, Macbeth has become such a broken man that he doesn’t shed a tear when Lady Macbeth dies. Transformed, Macbeth now sees death, life, and, by extension, love as “signifying nothing.”
Not all of Shakespeare’s risk-takers are ill-fated. In several cases, love (or perhaps lust) cause characters to run away with each other, and their decisions don’t lead to tragedy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, Hermia and Lysander elope to the woods to be married. Their friend Helena also takes a desperate chance by following Demetrius, though he has expressed no interest in her. In As You Like It
, Rosalind pretends to be a man so she can spend time with her love interest, Orlando, without being sure of what his reaction will be when she eventually removes her disguise. For all of these couples, the risks are worth it; they end up with their lovers, living happily ever after.
Reasonable characters start acting unbalanced when in the grips of love. In some cases, they become irrationally jealous, destroying their relationships in the process.
In Othello, the sneaky Iago uses the transformative power of jealousy to sabotage Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. As Othello later states, he loves “not wisely but too well.” The couple’s strong marriage cannot stand up against the suspicions that Iago plants in Othello’s head. When he can stand it no longer, Othello kills Desdemona—only then finding out that he has been misled and probably should have had a conversation with his wife before smothering her.
In Much Ado about Nothing, the gentlemanly Claudio returns from war and proposes to Hero, “a jewel” and “the sweetest lady that ever [he] looked on.” She accepts, but an embittered troublemaker convinces Claudio that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful with some guy who supposedly sweet talks her at her window at night. Claudio’s jealousy overtakes his normal levelheadedness, and he does not discuss the confusion with Hero. Instead, he calls the wedding off in a dramatic outburst, calling Hero a “rotten orange,” guilty of “cunning sin.” As a result, it seems that Hero has literally died of shame. Is this the end? Actually, in this case, tragedy is averted. It turns out that Hero is still alive and can marry Claudio, who learns that he has been misled and that she is, in fact, an innocent “maid.”
Yet another kind husband-turned-jealous-murderer appears in The Winter’s Tale, where King Leontes gets anxious when Queen Hermione is polite to his pal Polixenes. Just as Desdemona and Hero were unable to convince their lovesick husbands to calm down, Hermione fails to calm Leontes. He locks her in a tower, sends their baby daughter to a remote island, causes their son to die of grief, and believes Hermione to be dead as well. Years later, the daughter returns and Leontes comes to his senses, which leads to a semi-happy reunion. Still, love and jealousy have largely ruined his family’s lives.
Not everyone’s love-fueled transformation changes them for the worse. For some characters, love softens and tames, leading to peaceful unions.
In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick and Beatrice start off with what seems to be a hate-hate relationship, full of bickering and insults. She calls him a “dull fool” and “the prince’s jester,” and he suggests that her unpleasantness could “infect to the north star.” The two can barely stand to be in each other’s presence. Then matchmaking friends carry out a scheme. They convince each of the two that the other is a secret admirer, and, unlikely as it seems, the haters rethink their animosity and become lovers. In this case, love truly transforms its subjects for the better.
Likewise, in The Taming of the Shrew, Kate changes her ways after a long struggle with Petruchio, her husband-to-be (and then her husband). Kate—a.k.a. “the shrew”—had been standing in the way of her younger sister’s love life; their father has insisted that the elder must marry before the younger can have suitors. This poses a problem, given that the local men see the abusive Kate as “stark mad.” But when Petruchio arrives from out of town, he decides to take a chance on a future with Kate. (It helps that her father’s rich.) It doesn’t go well at first. She thinks he’s a “mad-cup ruffian” and wishes him dead. Nonetheless, they marry, and Petruchio’s ongoing struggles pay off. All he has to do is starve her and deprive her of sleep. Granted, this may count as brainwashing or torture more than romance, but, all the same, they end up getting along.
As Shakespeare might say, all’s well that ends well!